Best free tools to build your own CI system

What does it take to set up a Competitive Intelligence (CI) system? Is there specific software? is it very complicated? is it expensive? …these are some of the most frequently asked questions that arise when someone is considering launching a CI project.

Competitive intelligence or CI is based on 4 steps:

  1. Plan the objectives of the project according to the business needs.
  2. collect information about competitors, structure and store it
  3. analyse it and obtain insights useful for the development of the product itself and for commercial activity. The quality of these insights will depend on the quality of the information collected as well as the expertise of the CI team.
  4. Create reports and distribute information to target users

So let us focus on processes 2 and 4: information collection and dissemination. Let’s look at the options we have when setting up a system:

Self-managed commercial software: there are several commercial tools that can be purchased and installed on local servers. In future posts we will review some of them, but I will tell you that due to their power and price they are solutions that are better adapted to large organizations.

Software as a Service (SaaS): they are replacing the previous ones. Basically, the entire information gathering process is outsourced to a specialist and the client has web access to a reporting tool. They are very flexible solutions that can be adapted to all types of customers.

“Homemade” (HM) system: use simple tools (most of them free) to create a basic CI system.

Undoubtedly, the “HM” system has two clear advantages: cost and knowledge acquisition. In my experience, this is a very good way to be aware of what your business’ real needs are in terms of CI, so if you end up opting for commercial software, it will be much easier to identify which one is the most suitable.

Let’s quickly review some examples of tools that can help us. The first thing to do is to identify the type of information we want to collect as well as the sources. In our example, we will collect information on competitors’ main products. We will focus on product news, financial data, patents, trademarks, technical specifications and contracts. Let’s see how to get this information:

  • Changes in your competitors’ websites: Visualping is an online tool that allows you to monitor changes in your competitors’ websites. You can track changes in prices, products, updates or any information you want to know and receive an email when a change is made. Visualping is very easy to use and has both free and paid plans.
  • News: most commercial software works in this field: sorting news by keywords. The most common thing is to work with Google directly but there are tools like Feedly that make our work easier. Feedly is the improved successor of the great but discontinued Google Reader. You can structure your fonts (including google news) and even for little money you get the premium version with collaborative options for teams.
  • Financial data: if the company is listed, Google finance or Yahoo finance are good free options but my preferred one is definitely Wall Street Journal. If it is not quoted, it is best to go to the web and look at investor presentations. If there is no information available, there are specialized online companies as Einforma that consolidate all public information for a small fee.
  • Patents: Google patent search is a very powerful tool and covers all major markets. Obtaining insights from this information is likely to be beyond the reach of a CI team but at least serves as an indicator of technological activity.
  • Brands: there are search engines for both EU (TMView) and US (TESS) brands. It is most convenient to use TMView as it includes results from all countries of the world.
  • Documents: the best thing is to store the pdf, ppt, etc. related to the competitor in a document manager but if none are available, at least a policy of file names and directories must be defined so that all the information is well catalogued and ready for a future migration to a document manager.

When it comes to distributing information, it is advisable to first create lists of users according to the type of information they are looking for. There should be at least 3 groups: strategy, technology and commercial. As for media, the main ones are:

Newsletters: the main support type push. To make them, there are a multitude of tools. If you want a quasi-professional but free solution the best thing is MailChimp. As a home-made solution you can always design your newsletter in word format and send it with Outlook or similar.

– Intranet portal: the main pull type support. If you have some basic knowledge and IT support, the best option is WordPress. If you need a collaborative environment, the true standard is MS Sharepoint (not free).

Collaborative environment: pull-push type. From lists in Whatsapp to using Slack, Yammer or Alfresco tools. They are very useful for getting direct feedback from users and opening information channels for example at a trade fair or when a competitor launches a new product.

My final recommendation for anyone who wants to launch a CI process in their company is to start at home to identify needs, typical users, information sources and reports and when you have all this clear, decide which tools are most appropriate depending on the volume of information, number of users, resources available,etc…In other words, that tools must be at the service of the process and never the other way around.